The young author at his bar mitzvah being addressed by Rabbi Mary Zamore, his ersatz aunt.
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox household. Once every month or so my mother’s best friend, a Reform rabbi, would visit us on Saturday afternoons. I affectionately refer to her as my “ersatz aunt.” Her husband, my “ersatz uncle,” we nicknamed “the rebbetzin.”
One of my earliest memories of going to shul was visiting my ersatz aunt, Rabbi Mary Zamore, in Westfield, N.J. She took me to the temple where she worked and sent me on a scavenger hunt for all of the Torah scrolls. I was amazed that the pulpit had a microphone, that men and women sat together and that my aunt was the rabbi. Back home, my synagogue could be called the exact opposite of my ersatz aunt’s synagogue.
When I was a child, the concept of pluralism — even though I didn’t know what it meant at the time — was relatively familiar. I grew up in a house and in a community where women weren’t rabbis and didn’t lead services, but they did at my aunt’s synagogue in mystical New Jersey.
I went to school where boys and girls sat together in class, but not in synagogue. There wasn’t just my way to be a Jew — there were multiple ways and just because my rabbi wasn’t a woman or just because I went to a school where girls and boys learned Talmud didn’t mean that my Judaism or their Judaism was any more or less legitimate; our practices were just different. My friends from my synagogue did their thing; I did mine.
Last spring I began the infamous college search that has forced me to re-examine my notions of pluralism. Although I have been afforded the ability to practice Judaism the way I see fit, in the comfort of my own home, I’ll soon be thrust into a universe where I will be forced to reconcile my religious identity with those in the Jewish community at whichever college I end up attending. I will be thrust headfirst into an inherently pluralistic environment, one where I will have to make my own choices regarding religious observance — for instance, which services will I attend on Friday nights and Saturday mornings? What level of kashrut will I observe?
Along my journey so far, I have realized that philosophies and creeds were the driving forces behind religious practices; these beliefs were just as deep-rooted and legitimate as the practices in which they were manifested. Although I had been raised in one specific way and was intermittently exposed to other belief systems to the religious left and right of me, I was raised that we ate these foods and not those, and while other Jews might eat those foods, we did not. And so at a young age, I think my view of pluralism was slightly skewed: I did my thing, my aunt and her family did theirs and the families at my synagogue did their own things. We respected them; they respected us.
Were my beliefs “more right” than their beliefs? At the time, I thought so. I thought that my practices and beliefs were the embodiment of Modern Orthodox tradition — more than others’ practices. While I knew full well that there were different ways to practice Judaism (my aunt and my synagogue were proof of that), I couldn’t find a valid reason why anyone would ever want to practice their Judaism in any way other than mine.
As I experienced different ways to relate to Judaism, I realized that my comfort within various religious settings was replaced with the insatiable desire to understand why others practiced Judaism the way they did. This curiosity led me to further delve into my views on pluralism and, ultimately, forced me to reexamine my role in the greater Jewish community. I began talking to my friends about how they viewed religion and how religion played a role in their lives.
As I learned that there were more ways to practice Judaism and believe in God, I began to appreciate the legitimacy of the wider spectrum of beliefs than that I had grown up around. Although I might disagree with my friends’ beliefs and practices, I respect their choices to practice Judaism in the way they see fit. I would accompany my friends to non-kosher restaurants, but order a soda; my friends would wait for me as I ate my lunch I had packed at home.
When I was a BBYO member I would be the only one in the room wearing a kipa. My fellow BBYO members greeted me with curiosity and then nonchalant acceptance. On the other hand, I was the only one in my synagogue to not wear a suit on Saturday mornings, trading it for a sweater and tie instead. When I led services in our teen minyan, I read the liturgy in a modern, Israeli accent whereas my friends would do so in the more traditional, European accent.
Despite our differences, I read — and believe in — the same Bible that they read and believe in and I’ve come to appreciate the ambiguity of the Torah. The same ambiguity that generations of rabbis have argued over has allowed me to appreciate what makes Jewish culture so rich: its diversity.
While I choose to keep kosher, others do not. While I keep Shabbat and abstain from using electronics, many (if not a majority) of my friends do not refrain from using their gadgets. Despite following Orthodox traditions, I still respect others’ practices. At the same time, while I do keep strictly kosher I do not limit myself to dairy products that have been supervised by a Jew (often referred to as “chalav yisrael”), whereas many in my synagogue do.
Finding, and accepting, the diversity of the Jewish community is, by extension, finding the legitimacy in others’ beliefs and practices. It was not enough to simply see other ways to practice Judaism, but I also challenge myself to reconcile their beliefs and practices with my own.
Another part of my change is how I view religious commitment. Growing up, religious commitment (frumkheit, as they called it) was determined by the school you attended, the food you ate and the clothes you wore. By the Orthodox community’s measures, I barely passed their requirements and my Reform rabbi aunt, in spite of her title, did not measure up at all.
Over time, I began to realize that religious commitment isn’t measured by clothing or schooling or food, but is, instead, different things for different people. There might not be an absolute way to determine religious commitment. To me, there isn’t a specific way to practice Judaism and thus, no way to discriminate against someone else because their expression of their commitment to Judaism might be different from my own.
As I start the process of leaving high school and finding the right college, I am continually finding more and more ways to practice Judaism and am finding myself more secure in the ways I practice Judaism too.
Do I believe that my practices and beliefs are right for me? Yes, but at the same time, I understand that others might have different ideas as to what constitutes being a committed Jew. And my duty is to respect their beliefs and practices as equally legitimate to my own. In turn, all I ask is that my beliefs and practices are respected and treated with the same legitimacy as I treat others.